Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

It's easy to say that the third volume in the most popular trilogy since Lord of the Rings is not as good as the other two. But it may actually be the one closest to Stieg Larsson's heart as he wrote about political corruption for a Swedish audience.

Larsson, who died prematurely, presumably had no inkling that his saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist would become a runaway international bestseller, and this third volume is heavy with Swedish domestic politics. What was a simple detective story touching universal themes in the first volume becomes almost a roman a clef in the third.

So it takes a certain amount of devotion to make it through the first half of this 600-page tome. One of the problems is that Salander is so little present. Another is the somewhat ponderous development of the complex plot. Larsson would have benefited here from the chance to work with an editor.

However, once Salander is on the scene again and the laboriously established plot gains some momentum, the reader can cruise at high speed through the second half. Salander is as quirky and intriguing as ever, with that gritty integrity which makes her so admirable. Blomkvist and Berger are their flawed, narcissistic selves.

There's much less discipline in this volume. The Amazon Monica Figuerola is an over-the-top fiction as Larsson indulges a highly personal fantasy. She's as perfect as a robot, with the same amount of appeal. Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini, too, is always just right. Ditto for several other characters. The evil villains are perfectly evil. Prosecutor Ekstrom borders on pure satire and is somewhat entertaining as a result.

But Salander and a neatly unfolding plot keep the reader's interest. The epilogue is not a throwaway and should really be just the last chapter, tying up the loose end that is so conspicuously dangling when the main plot comes to its conclusion. To call it contrived would be an understatement, but at least the loose end gets tied up.

So I would probably rank the trilogy 2, 1, 3, with the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire my favorite simply because it keeps Salander at center stage for the most time. For its thriller quality, the first volume, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is probably the tightest.

Sadly, there will be no further adventures for Salander, nor any further thrills from Larsson's fertile mind. Not sorry to be finished with Blomkvist, Berger and Millennium -- they're all a little too smug and too full of their role as the guardians of Swedish freedom and democracy. What I will miss is Larsson's feeling for the profound corruption in society and its basis in personal corruption, the underlying current that moves these entertaining volumes along.

What is Salander's appeal? Grit, yes; integrity, yes; an ability to cut through cant to the heart of the matter, yes. But I think at heart it's her vulnerability -- she is a victim who overcomes her hurt but remains vulnerable, literally to the last minute in this long saga. And her realization, at the end, but really throughout, that the only real protection is reliance on her friends.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This is a brave, hard work showing the abyss that separates the West from Islam. At times a realistic narrative, Mohsin Hamid's novel veers into parable, with the narrator, the young Pakistani Changez, representing Islam and Erica, his white American girlfriend mired deep in a psychosis with self-destructive tendencies, representing the West.

It is also the best one-sided dialogue since Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, where a seductively compelling voice carries you along through a story almost against your will.

How does it end? There is a tension throughout the narrative. Who is the American Changez is talking to? Why does the waiter in the restaurant appear menacing? Hamid sets up a scenario of mutually assured destruction and leaves the reader the choice of outcome.

The realistic portion of the narrative -- Changez's career in New York and budding love affair with Erica -- is sharply drawn and readily recognizable. A bright foreign student fits in so well that his colleagues can forget he is foreign and be blissfully unaware of the deep and different currents that run through him. It is the catastrophe of 9/11 that bring these hidden currents to the surface.

There are some striking similarities to Netherland. Both stories involve foreigners who come to New York to work in finance. Both protagonists have their foreignness brought home to them by the terrorist attacks. Both end up going home. For all our globalized markets and economy, an individual's roots in culture and family will exert a pull in times of stress.

Hamid's work is more radical, because Joseph O'Neill's protagonist in Netherland is European, with much more affinity for his host country. It is hard even with the most open mind to accept Changez's feeling of happiness at the destruction of the World Trade Center, but it's important to keep your eyes open and acknowledge the reality of it.

I'll admit I had to check my globe to see where Lahore is located -- right on India's western border. That antagonism adds another layer to the book's conflict. It is not just Islam vs the West, but also against the vast Hindu state on its borders. Pakistan is as artificial a creation as Israel, a refuge based on religion. Oddly, Changez's description of the market, the tea, the food kind of make me want to visit Lahore.

The author bio says Hamid, who grew up in Lahore and attended Princeton like his protagonist, now lives in London, which has become a mecca for diversity. Like other writers from the subcontinent, Hamid has a wonderful, flowing style that is somehow entrancing to read. I'll look for his earlier book, Moth Smoke, and for his next one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The English Major

This book was a pleasant surprise. There was something fresh and striking on virtually every page -- at times wry or outright funny, or poignant, or, sometimes, wise.

I had read Jim Harrison's Warlock many years ago and liked it well enough. So the other day when I saw this on the new fiction table at Politics & Prose, I picked it up, liked the opening and bought it.

Cliff is 60. His wife of 38 year divorced him and they sold his farm in the process. His dog, Lola, died. He embarks on a road trip to cope with his loss, guided by a harebrained scheme to rename all the states after he's seen them and to rename the state birds, and other birds, while he's at it. He carries a child's jigsaw puzzle of the 50 states and throws the piece for a state away once he's been through it.

Part of Harrison's talent is that he makes all of this seem perfectly natural. Cliff is quirky, flawed, but very sympathetic. He has enough self-irony and self-deprecation to avoid falling into pathos. "Here I was at sixty with no home to return to but that didn't make me unique," he says at one point. "Time tricks us into thinking we're part of her and then leaves us behind."

Harrison has published several volumes of poetry and the distilled insight threaded through this book shows a poet's sensibility. But always down to earth. The newly liberated married man -- though he also had an affair at the end of his marriage -- picks up a former student of his for part of the road trip. The sex-hungry, narcissistic Marybelle fulfills the fantasies of a lifetime for Cliff but in the end it is too much. He wakes up one night in a motel room unhappy with his situation. "I had an irritating hard-on when what I wished to be was a monk in a cool room reading a Latin text by candlelight."

Cliff misses his wife, Vivian, at least he Viv he remembers from the early years of their marriage. He misses Lola, too, his main companion in life after Viv went into real estate and became increasingly estranged. When Cliff stays with his son in San Francisco, the son, Robert, wakes him up one morning with the greeting, "Poor old Dad, you look beat up." Cliff tells us, "I didn't take offense because I had had a pleasant dream of Lola sitting beside me on the John Deere."

On his road trip through several Western states (don't worry, he doesn't make it through all 50), Cliff stops often to take photos of the local cattle, with a comment about how they compare to the cattle on his farm. My mother, who grew up on a farm, always remarked about the cows we saw whenever we traveled together.

He is also attentive to birds, noting the state bird in each new state and sometimes coming up with a different name for them. He is dumbfounded when a drinking buddy on the road tells him about a quote found in the journal of a schizophrenic who escaped from an asylum: "Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass."

Cliff comes to terms with his new losses, as he always has, beginning with the accidental drowning of his brother, who had Down syndrome, when he was a child. He grieves, he weeps when he sees what the new owners have done with his beloved farm, he cobbles together an uncertain future, he gets a new dog.

It's a quick, wonderful read, a homespun picaresque that is often touching. I won't wait so long to read another Jim Harrison novel, and I'm very curious now about his poetry.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dead of Winter

This book was a disappointment. The rugged, vigorous language I loved in the earlier Rennie Airth books was still here in parts, particularly in the descriptions of the English countryside. But the dark, brooding menace of his earlier books -- River of Darkness and Blood-Dimmed Tide -- was barely present here.

One of the reasons was the curious absence of John Madden, whose trouble psyche added such resonance to the psychologically disturbed criminals he was chasing in the earlier books. Why Airth or his editor thought it would be a good idea to set this book more than 20 years later, and make Madden merely one player in an ensemble cast baffles me.

Oddly, Detective Inspector Angus Sinclair has as big a role in this book as Madden, and he is a consummately colorless individual. He is little more than a spouter of dialogue and an admirer of Madden's way too flawless wife, with a feeling that is more cloying than creepy. His dialogues with his superior, Bennett, are totally flat and seem interminable as the plot advances at a snail's pace through their insipid dialogue.

Airth has clearly set the stage for Lily Poole to take over the baton in the next book. Perhaps she will be entertaining on center stage. But Airth has lost his distinctiveness by consigning Madden's darkness to history.

The plot itself, if you're willing to stick with the plodding development, has a couple of nice twists. The ending has its drama and suspense but is remarkably similar to the endings in the other two books.

Sadly, it seems that Airth, who relaunched his literary career with River of Darkness, has run out of imagination. I can't recommend this book, though I would still urge people to read at least River of Darkness.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Read all day

At first it strikes you as a little nutty, the latest 365-day project. But if anyone doubts that Nina Sankovitch is serious about reading, even though she has read a book a day for the past year, they should read her thoughtful and helpful reviews.

The New York Times ran a story about her project Monday. Her Web site,, has the reviews.

It is the list of authors that hooked me. Sankovitch resolved not to repeat any author (nor to read any book she had read before), so she has an impressive list of 350 authors. 350 authors! In less than a year!

All of us have adopted the mantra "So many books, so little time," but Sankovitch's project shows us how relative this is. She stopped reading the New Yorker and limited her TV viewing to a single program (NCIS). Obviously she doesn't have to work -- which of course earned her a number of resentful comments on the Times Web site. But, hey, she has a law degree from Harvard, has worked as an environmental lawyer and chooses not to work right now because she can -- lucky her.

In the Times article, her only point is that everyone should have time to read a book a week, and it's hard to argue with this. In any case, her example is revelatory and certainly inspires me to try harder to make time for reading.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

660 Curries

I finally cooked a recipe from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer and it was delicious. I've decided to cook my way through the book over the next year -- 365 days, 660 curries. Just kidding, but I've been wanting to write that since seeing Julie and Julia.

Started with a very simple chicken curry with tomato and coconut milk. It was quick and easy and perfect for a week night. You just sautee some red onion, garlic and ginger, then sear the 1-inch cubes of chicken breast with curry mix, add the coconut milk and simmer till cubes are done (only a few minutes), remove the chicken and thicken the sauce, add tomato and cilantro, pour sauce over the chicken and serve.

I was going to grind the Madras curry powder myself from the component spices (coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, thai chiles, and turmeric) but Wholefoods didn't have either whole fenugreek seeds or thai chiles so I just used some of the packaged curry powders on my shelf. Obviously, though, the real secret to this cuisine is to grind the spices fresh and I will just have to improve my sourcing for ingredients.

I bought this book some time ago after reading about Iyer being International Association of Culinary Professionals Teacher of the Year. I have other Indian cookbooks, including a couple of the classics by Madhur Jaffrey, and I like Indian cuisine, but I've found the undertaking daunting. This book seems to me to make Indian cooking accessible in the way Julia Child did for French cooking.

Curry of course refers not primarily to the powder or the sauce in a dish -- though that is the way most Americans would define it -- but to the dish itself. The frontispiece of the book defines it this way: "Any dish that consists of either meat, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits, simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy or other liquid that is redolent with any number of freshly ground and very fragrant spices and/or herbs."

It was a revelation to me the first time I went to Indique how the spices could burst with flavor when freshly ground. In the meantime, my favorite area Indian restaurant is Passages to India in Bethesda, where again that freshness is paramount.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown is an undeniably clever guy. He put together a mix of religion and esoterica into a serviceable thriller plot and got one of history's most widely read novels. He tries to reproduce the phenomenon in his new book, using patriotism instead of religion, and fails to get the mix right.

For one thing, there is way too much esoterica. Long patches of dialogue read like Wikipedia texts, turning the novel into an encyclopedia of arcane knowledge. Layer on a Washington, DC, edition of Trivial Pursuit and you've got mystery nowhere near as potent as Jesus establishing a royal bloodline.

The weakness of Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon, becomes glaringly apparent in the absence of a riveting plot. A symbolist who remains a cipher, Langdon is almost totally devoid of personality, and is not even a two-dimensional character. It's appropriate that the bland Tom Hanks plays him in the films. Once again he has a female helper, but once again Brown shies away from anything like full-throated romance.

Brown's compression technique -- having the action take place in a 24-hour period -- has been intensified to a 12-hour period, that defies credibility. One character who has survived torture, dismemberment and emotional trauma, instead of being in a state of shock, is blithely discoursing about arcane matters within minutes of his rescue.

Personally, I like a lot of the arcane stuff, but this book is top-heavy with it and often repetitive. It is of course at the top of the bestseller list from pre-orders alone, and Brown has created a franchise that will survive this book and go on to another bestseller. But this is no Da Vinci Code and is really only mildly entertaining as a thriller.